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Commands & Colors: Ancients Expansions 2 & 3 Review

cca23Britain is pockmarked with standing stones. On a recent holiday we passed them in a dozen different sites. High on windy hillsides or perched above rocky bays, the waves seething over jagged rocks beneath. I love to touch them, to touch my history. They feel like the bones of the country, smooth yet pitted.

Traces of their makers cover the landscape like a swirling tattoo. Hill forts, barrows, buried hoards of gold. Yet they do not speak to me. Their brash Roman conquerors do. Julius Caeser wrote books. His legionaries wrote letters, pleading for thick socks and underthings against the bitter British climate. I had long hoped I might find the voices of the Britons in some forgotten thing. A squashed coin perhaps, or a rusted sword hilt.

I have found them now, in a most unexpected place. In a box, fashioned from green wood and decorated with gaudy stickers.

They are not always Britons. Sometimes they masquerade as Gauls or ancient Germans. It matters little. All these peoples shared a culture, all contributed to my culture and all them were silenced. Their voices drowned out by the shouting of their conqueror, Rome.

At first, Commands & Colors: Ancients seemed a strange place to find them. With its emphasis on lines, leaders and structure, it felt a poor fit for this rabble of proud barbarians. They should be rushing the enemy, half naked and ululating, not trying to scrabble together adjacent units for a line command. I couldn’t see how the system would accommodate them without a lot of extra rules.

The answer is simple. Barbarian armies rely on light units, chariots and warriors. Against them, their Roman empire foes are from the legionary era, with its backbone of heavy infantry. Embellished with the new Marian Legions rule which gives them missile fire to represent their pilums, they are a terrifying force.

The result is a perfect ballet of asymmetry. The Roman army can function like a well oiled machine – providing its commander has a bit of luck and a lot of skill with command cards. The barbarians can’t hope to face them in formal battle lines. Instead they must rely on their maneuverability, flexibility and the momentum advance of the warrior units.

Not that it does all that much good. It’s difficult in many of the scenarios for the barbarians to win. Trying offers a tiny taste of the terror they must have felt. Rough men with rough weapons charging down the most effective military machine of the ancient world. A human tide breaking on a wall of iron.

You might ask why they bothered. The vast contrast between the stickers and capabilities of the two armies offers a clue. These cultures were profoundly different. The barbarians fought to protect those differences. Because they wanted to worship at stone circles under the open sky, not austere temples of marble.

It’s not all about the barbarians. Julius Caesar makes an appearance, alongside his formidable tenth legion. There are special rules to make them appropriately fearsome. There is Spartacus, too, and other slave revolts. They’re allowed to roll burning logs onto the enemy in a unique area-effect attack. When it’s resolved, the slaves themselves lose a block which has to be one of the most appallingly expressive rules I’ve ever seen. It reeks of desperation; and woodsmoke.

The Romans get their own scenario booklet, detailing the brutal civil wars the marked the end of the republic. These are similar to the existing scenarios of Greece and the Punic Wars in terms of the forces offered. There are some new terrain tiles to throw in.

And even though they happened far away, they have their own immediacy. These were not far-flung conflicts in Africa or private violence between city states. These battles were pivotal in western history. Had they gone otherwise, it could have been Mark Antony or Pompey wading ashore at Dover, or no-one at all.

There are over forty new scenarios here. Thanks to subtle use of terrain and novel elements, they offer huge diversity. In place of the blank battlefields of the original there are marshes and coasts, villages and ramparts. Rather than faceless light, medium, heavy toops there are the stoic Legionaries of popular imagination. Waiting in silence as painted devils descend on them from the fog.

I have played wargames where British soldiers fought on British soil from the Wars of the Roses to Operation Sealion. But none felt as personal or evocative as this. With a minimum of rules, these expansion scenarios give voice to a long dead people. They allow us to touch their vanished world like we touch their standing stones. There’s little more one can ask for a conflict simulation.

Commands & Colors Expansions Review

Commands and Colors Spartan & Spanish army expansions for the Ancients & Napoleonics base games
And so we arrive and the third and final entry in the series covering GMTs Commands & Colors games, looking at expansions. Ostensibly this is a review of the Spanish army expansion for Commands & Colors: Napoleonics game and the Spartan expansion for the Commands & Colors: Ancients game but in order to frame these properly, I’m going to have to delve more deeply into the system as a whole.

I have always said that Commands & Colors: Ancients is the best of this overly-large and diverse series, but only as a stand-alone game. If you’re willing to commit money and time to buying several expansions then ultimately, Memoir ‘44 by Days of Wonders pips it at the post in terms of game play, if not simulation value. The reason for this is simple: the Memoir ‘44 game has some important flaws, especially in terms of scenario design. Each of its three army expansions then does two important things. Firstly, they offer superior scenarios to those in the base game. Second, and more importantly, each has a simple new rule, applying to all the troops in the new army, that significantly differentiates they way they play from the basic Germans and US troops in the base game meaning you get more of the same fun from the base game alongside some interesting new stuff to revive your flagging enthusiasm. The best example of this is the Commissar rule from the Soviet expansion which requires the Russian player to select his command card a turn in advance, simultaneously making playing the army a very different experience, upping the tension and excitement in the game and encouraging the player to think and plan ahead more clearly. That’s a pretty amazing transformation for one simple rule.

The Commands & Colors: Ancients expansions, of which Spartans is, quite incredibly, the sixth and allegedly the last, have not followed this pattern. Instead each box has included the blocks and stickers for one or two new armies, one or both of which will have the odd new unit type for which there may be news rules or sometimes just slightly different statistics. There will be a whole bunch of new scenarios, one or two of which will give you some interesting special rules. If you’re heavily into history, then there’s plenty of value here. You’ll like that each army has new historically accurate artwork and is made up of an authentically proportioned unit mix, even if most or all of those unit types are identical to those of the base game. You’ll appreciate the fact that the new scenario books allow you to re-fight new and exciting battles from ancient history, even if quality-wise they’re no better than those in the base game. You’ll get a kick out of the overall novelty of the experience, even if strategically it’s no deeper than the base game, and no more exciting.

If you’re not so bothered about the history, then most of the new stuff will pass you by because in terms of actual game-play, most of the expansions simply don’t add enough new things to make them different enough from the base game to be worth your time and money. There are twenty scenarios in the base game, all of which are asymmetric and most of which are worth playing several times from each side, and for the majority of gamers that’s more than enough play time to exhaust interest in the system. There’s simply no need to go adding expansions to an already very good game.

Commands & Colors: Ancients Spartan blocks at the battle of Thermopylae

So what about Spartans? Well, for starters to play it you also need the first expansion, Greece & the Eastern Kingdoms, to make use of it. This is currently out of print, although a re-issue is in the works. Beyond what’s in that expansion, Spartans really doesn’t offer a lot of significantly new material. The single new unit is the Hoplite which is a standard medium infantry unit that can also be ordered by cards that affect mounted units, making them slightly more flexible than normal medium infantry. That’s pretty much it and I have to say I find that disappointing, possibly indicative of expansion fatigue. Alongside the Spartan army blocks, it has some other Greek blocks, such as the famous Silver Shields, which can be used in place of stand-in blocks in scenarios from the first expansion. Where things start to improve is in the scenarios: there are several very famous battles represented in this expansion, including two covering the battle of Thermopylae, which pretty much everyone must have heard of after the film 300. And they don’t disappoint: the Thermopylae scenarios themselves are the best of them. But, as I already said, there are a lot of very good scenarios in the base game. So this one really is for Commands & Colors fans with a particular bent for Greek history, and them alone. There’s simply not enough new and interesting here for more casual players to bother.

The Spanish Army expansion on the other hand, the very first of several planned expansions for the Napoleonics outing of the Commands & Colors system, is a closer match for the Memoir ‘44 model. Spanish blocks, in a horrible shade of dirty yellow, follow the same basic pattern as the French and British units from the base game but there are two important differences. Firstly Spanish infantry units suffer serious penalties for moving and firing, which represents their lower grade training and equipment compared to other European counterparts. Second the Spanish player has access to guerrilla warfare tokens which can be spent to cancel enemy command cards, effectively making him lose a turn. A whole turn, and yes, that’s just as powerful as it sounds. These two differences do what’s required and mean commanding the Spanish army requires significantly different approaches from base game troops. The nerf to moving and firing means you can’t confidently advance over open ground and trust to averages to limit the attritional damage you take, forcing you to find new ways to get to grips with the enemy. And this dovetails nicely, of course, with those guerilla rules, because they give you one possible way of doing just that. But mixed in are issues of timing, because tokens are limited and you’d better make sure you use them only when you need them.

They really could have chosen something other than dirty yellow for the Spanish blocks in Commands & Colors: Napoleonics

Scenarios, again, are at the same level of quality as the base game. There are also two new French unit types to add to the mix. It’s unfortunate that relatively few people will know much about the conflict between France and Spain during the Napoleonic wars (I didn’t) as it may limit interest and immersion in what, technically speaking, is a good and well-designed expansion.

So there you have it: possibly the longest introduction ever to two very short reviews, one negative and one positive. But it’s necessary, I think, because as the Commands & Colors system becomes more bloated with options, gamers need more information to make informed choices about what they do and don’t need. At least that seems a good excuse for my usual excessive verbosity, and I’m sticking to it.

Commands & Colours: Napoleonics Review

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics - the latest iteration of this famous series from GMT games

You may recall that at the start of last weeks’ Commands & Colors: Ancients review I stated that there were a number of games based on the system, and that wargame publisher GMT had sent me a big box of stuff related to it? Well, next in the spotlight is the recent Commands & Colors: Napoleonics game, which transplants the action to the fields of early 19th century Europe and the famed conflict between England and France. This is a particularly interesting one to talk about because rumour has it that designer Richard Borg originally designed the Commands & Colors system from Napoleonic warfare. If that’s true then it’s taken a surprisingly long time for the actual game on the subject to appear.

If you missed that review last week but are reading this one, here’s a brief recap of the basic rules system that underpins all the Commands & Colors systems. The board is divided into three areas, left, right and center, and each player has a hand of cards most of which will allow the movement and attack of a certain number of units across one or more of those areas. So, one card might say three units in the center for example, another might be one unit in each area and so on. One card is played each turn. This is a very simple and intuitive way to model the chaos of command and control in real-life battle situations where your subordinates might well be unaware of or unable to comply with your orders for reasons beyond your control. Usefully it also offers some interesting tactical and strategic decisions, both on board and in terms of hand management, for the board game player. This model still makes pretty good sense in the pre-radio era of Napoleonic warfare. Each unit is made up of a variable number of blocks which are removed as the unit accumulates damage in the dice-based combat system until all the blocks are gone and the unit is destroyed.

A lot of the rules framework seems to have been borrowed from GMTs earlier and extremely popular implementation of the system for Ancient warfare. There are still a lot of unit types most of which have small, annoying but critically important deviations from the basic rules structure such as the number of dice they roll or the number of blocks in a unit. This has lead to some curious artefacts, such as the fact that Leader blocks carry with them a substantial amount of extra rules weight in spite of the fact that, although useful, they’re nowhere near as critical as they are in Ancients. But if you’re familiar with that particular game, you shouldn’t need to expend a whole lot of effort to pick up the rules for this one.

As in other Commands & Colors games from GMT, there are a lot of blocks to sticker
So what’s changed? There are two key differences that distinguish Commands & Colors: Napoleonics from its peers in the system. The first is a set of rules specifically designed to mimic Napoleonic tactics, specifically the ability to cavalry to run away from infantry attacks, for infantry to form square against cavalry charges and for artillery to combined their attack dice with infantry or cavalry assaults in a combined arms attack. The other is that in this game, and this game alone, the number of dice a unit rolls in combat is related to how many blocks there are still in the unit. This is a very curious change because the fact that units fought at full strength regardless of damage until destroyed was a major source of criticism for all the early Commands & Colors games. The given reason was that large-scale military units often do function reasonably effectively until attrition in morale or numbers makes them suddenly collapse is not entirely unreasonable, but I could see no good reason why the same logic should not apply to Napoleonic warfare. Why was this chosen to be different?

My initial, cynical, assumption was that this had been done simply to differentiate a new product from its predecessors in what’s becoming a fairly bloated product range. I am pleased to say that actually playing the game proved me to be wholly wrong. The combination of attritional damage and the Napoleonics-ear specific rules together is what gives the game its authentic, realistic age of rifles flavour. Infantry advancing across open ground will likely be severely depleted before they can return fire, and the job of you as the commander is to utilise other unit types, terrain and lucky command cards to ameliorate this effect as much as possible. Without the dice-per-block rule, it’d be trivially easy to advance and then assault at full strength. The new rules do not only give the system a properly Napoleonic feel, but make the required strategies and tactics for success subtle and well differentiated from other Commands & Colors games. Gamers well versed in previous iterations of the series should still find plenty of challenge here.
Commands & Colors: Napoleonics features some new rules, such as the ability of infantry to form square against cavalry attacks
I am, however, left wondering why exactly they’d want to bother looking. Whilst certainly a good and interesting game, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics suffers from a very unfortunate problem of simply not being quite up to scratch when compared with other Commands & Colors games, even from a variety of different angles. It isn’t quite as deep and satisfyingly realistic as the Ancients game, but it has the same issues with the substantial weight of rules feeling a little too much for the chaotic system that underpins it to bear properly. It isn’t as quick playing, lightweight and exciting and Memoir ‘44 but it has the same considerable set-up time because (unlike Ancients) terrain plays a vital role, and all the scenarios have plenty of hexes to add to the board. It’s neither one thing nor the other, and I can’t see all that many circumstances where I would pick this over one of those two games.

This is unfortunate. There’s a quality game in this package, one that I enjoyed, and one that designer and developers clearly worked hard on to give it the necessary Napoleonic flavour, and for the most part succeeded: it’s just that in the process they also created a game that fell into the valley between two peaks. I’m certain now of something I have only suspected before, which is that the world now has enough Commands & Colors games and their associated expansions. It’ll be interesting to see if other gamers hit the same burnout with the upcoming Samurai battles iteration. In the meantime, if you’re a particular aficionado of the system, or of Napoleonic warfare, this is well worth your time and money to check out. For the everyone else, the existing games in the lineup should prove sufficient.

Commands & Colours: Ancients Review

Commands and Colors: Ancients allows you to re-fight the punic wars between Rome and Carthage

If you google Commands and Colors, you’ll get a startling array of results all of which are connected to a simple game system for modelling warfare that’s become so wildly popular with board gamers that it’s spawned a mass of iterations across historical and even fantastical settings. However, ask most experienced gamers what the best of these titles is and they’ll tell you it’s Commands & Colors: Ancients from GMT games, which deals for the most part with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. That publisher recently sent me a big box of various Commands & Colors material for review and, given that an iOS implementation is due from Playdek some time this year, Ancients seemed a good place to start.

All the Commands & Colors games operate on the same basic mechanical principles. The board is divided into three areas, left, right and center, and each player has a hand of cards most of which will allow the movement and attack of a certain number of units across one or more of those areas. So, one card might say three units in the center for example, another might be one unit in each area and so on. One card is played each turn. This is a very simple and intuitive way to model the chaos of command and control in real-life battle situations where your subordinates might well be unaware of or unable to comply with your orders for reasons beyond your control. Usefully it also offers some interesting tactical and strategic decisions, both on board and in terms of hand management, for the board game player. One of the reasons that Ancients is so feted amongst all the games that use this system is because the era is so peculiarly well suited to this model. In more recent warfare, order relays have been improved by things such as flag signalling and more recently radio, increasing exponentially the ability of a commander to command effectively. Back in the ancient days though, there was nothing but runners to communicate orders down the line and things could and did become exceptionally confused.

All Commands & Colours games also add more complex card effects into the deck and Ancients makes full use of these to maximise its model of ancient warfare for minimal overhead. A lot of cards allow you to give orders to units depending on their adjacency either to other units, or to leader units so you’re encouraged to fall in with ancient battle doctrine and try and keep your units in a line, with leaders at vital points of control. Again, usefully for the board game player, it also gives you a lot of tactical and strategic headaches to deal with in terms of trying to keep a cohesive front in the face of a system that naturally tries to split things between three areas of the board, the sorts of headaches that real-life ancient commanders would have had to deal with in trying to keep the flanks of their forces coordinated with the center. The simple and easy manner in which the mechanics put you in the right frame of mind for warfare of the era without you even realising it is just a joy to behold, especially when compared with the wealth of historical simulation games that hit the players with a ton more rules to considerably less effect.

Your forces in Commands & Colors: Ancients will often start in linear formation, but they usually don't stay that way for long!
Sadly, while you do get an awful lot of strategic and simulation value from a relatively meagre 18 pages of rules, the game still suffers a bit from detail overload. There are a lot of different unit types in Ancients – 14 to be precise – all of which require very slightly different rules and have very slightly different stats. That’s a lot to take on board. The need for good leader positioning and line cohesion give you a lot to chew over in terms of decision making. And yet the essence of the Commands & Colours system is very much controlled chaos: combat is dice based and maneuver is card based and no matter how much effort to put into learning those rules and planning those moves, your entire game can still be completely screwed over by one unlucky turn. Ancients plays in about an hour, and set-up time, which is typically significant in its peers, is relatively quick thanks to minimal battlefield terrain, so this is largely forgivable. But I still find myself hanging back from a completely wholehearted recommendation on this game because of these issues: it’s simply that the Commands & Colours system feels like it’s better suited to lighter rules and faster, more immediately exciting play than Ancients can deliver, whatever it gives you in terms of simulation value and depth in return.

Which isn’t to say that the game isn’t exciting, more that it’s a slow burning thing that gradually builds towards a crescendo. You’ll start off struggling to keep your line in place whilst moving toward the enemy, and additionally co-ordinating missile attacks from light troops and flanking maneuvers from your more mobile cavalry and chariots. You’ll curse the dice, and you’ll curse the cards more. Then, at some point, one player decides he’s got the momentum and the cards to pull off the big charge, the light infantry will melt away, and a big part of the lines will clash for a grand melee and suddenly the tension is at fever pitch because in Commands & Colors: Ancients, enemy units you don’t kill or rout get to strike back at full strength and that means that in the space of minutes, it’s possible to go from being in the ascendancy to being ignominiously torn apart by the very enemy you’d thought to conquer. Thrilling? Absolutely. Frustrating? Sometimes, and doubly so when you’ve put in the effort to learn the rules and work through the strategies. That’s pretty much the highs and the lows of the entire game experience in one neat package.

There are a lot of blocks in Commands & Colors: Ancients - there are over twice as many stickers to apply to them
I don’t normally pass much comment on components nowadays: if a game is good it’s worth playing even if it looks awful, but there are two things you need to know about what’s in the Commands & Colours: Ancients box. Firstly, wargame publishers are not known for quality components and while GMT are know as a frequent exception to this rule, they’ve outdone themselves here. The board is mounted, the cards thick and well finished and the artwork both functional and striking. Secondly, units in the game consist of wooden blocks to which you apply stickers denoting the unit type. There are several hundred blocks. There are double the amount of stickers. Getting this game ready for play therefore requires a very considerable amount of time and effort. You can do a lot of it while you’re half-watching the TV or, better yet, just having a good chat but if the idea of carefully applying many hundreds of stickers to small bits of wood has you running for cover, avoid this game like the plague.

Even though I have minor reservations about the game play in Commands & Colors: Ancients and can’t therefore join the unadulterated love-in that it enjoys in some gaming circles, I have no dispute with the popular opinion that as a single, stand alone game, it’s the best of the entire Commands & Colors series. When you add in expansions things become more complicated but it’s still right up at the top as a contender. The effortless manner in which it draws players unwittingly into its simulation elements and the uneasy yet strangely addictive balance between luck and strategy that it achieves make sure of that. If you’ve never played a Commands & Colors game but have room in your life for a short military simulation for two, you owe it to yourself to try one, and the one you should try first is very probably this one. Hopefully, Playdek will work their magic and that opportunity will also come within reach of anyone who might otherwise balk at paying the asking price for a physical copy, or stickering all those blocks.

Board Game Overload

Agricola board game on iPad tablet and iPhone mobile

The effect that the iPad has had on the board gaming community is amazing. The potential of the device as a board game platform was immediately apparent and since release designers and developers have been choosing a wide variety of titles to port across based on various criteria such ease of conversion, suitability for AI play and popularity. Some, such as Ascension have been spectacular successes, others like Bohnanza have been very questionable choices but the stream has been constant and steady and most of the products well worth checking for their extremely reasonable app store prices.

But it seems to me that suddenly, we’ve reached a tipping point. That stream has very suddenly become a veritable flood, at least if you include all the titles for which conversions are promised as being in the pipeline. Amongst the excellent games that I’ve read will be sent to the iPad in the near future are Commands & Colors: Ancients, Survive: Escape from Atlantis, Nightfall, Summoner Wars, Eclipse and Twilight Struggle. Others, such as Imperial and Cyclades are poised to receive important updates. There are more I can’t mention because I’ve forgotten them, or because the bases games aren’t interesting enough to be on my radar.

I don’t doubt that this sudden rush to market has something to do with the fact that Days of Wonder publicly observed that sales of their Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride: Pocket apps were driving sales of the physical game and vice-versa. And as a hobby gamer it’s a pretty exciting time – that link between physical and digital sales that Days of Wonder CEO Eric Hautemont observed holds up the possibility that this may be the watershed moment we’ve all been longing for when certain more accessible hobby games penetrate the wider conciousness meaning that we have more people to play against and further dispelling of the pejorative perception that games are just things for kids. It’s a good time to be a gamer.

But there’s a part of me that’s worried. It’s probably the same part that would niggle me with doubts about future happiness if I were to win a multi-million lottery prize in this case certainly driven by annoyance over how I’m going to afford all these things and find time to play them. What worries me is that in the rush to put everything on a tablet, some people, especially nascent board gamers attracted by the new titles but without wide experience of the hobby, will forget why board games have attractions over video games in the first place, to whit human interaction. I mean, the fact that someone thought Bohnanza would make a great experience without a cut-throat table full of people to bargain and haggle with doesn’t bode well in this regard, nor does the absence of messaging facilities in more appropriate games and nor does the downward march of the European game design paradigm that seems determined to squeeze every last ounce of direct player interaction out of the game experience. Casual gamers may come to modern board games through mobile devices, but if they continue to find them as dry and soulless as many of them are now, they certainly won’t stay.